By Brian Ochsner (firstname.lastname@example.org) As we again celebrated Independence Day this week, I've thought about where America is as a country, and how the spirit of 21st-century America compares to the spirit of '76. There are some good traits that have remained intact, but there's also some other characteristics that have gone away from the original intent of the Founders. In some respects America is more independent than ever. But it's also more dependent on government and American companies to provide them happiness, instead of enjoying the freedom to pursue their happiness.
Americans have always been for the most part rugged individualists. Through the first century and a half of our country's existence, our ancestors were God-fearing, hard-working people who thought (and usually worked) for themselves. They didn't look to the government or a company for their security. They generally knew the risks involved with exploration and new ventures, accepted them, and stepped out on faith for the possibility of a better life.
Today it's vastly different. More than a few Americans are looking to government or a company to make them safe and secure now and in retirement. Roosevelt's New Deal started and Johnson's Great Society reinforced dependence on government to fight poverty and increase American prosperity. Social Security, defined-benefit pensions, and farm subsidies have dulled the entrepreneurial spirit and industriousness that Americans were famous for in the early 20th Century.
If I could time travel, I'd love to be transported back to the offices of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and get a taste of what they did, how they struggled, and ended up victorious in business.
Nowadays, children are educated through our public and private schools to be what I call 'Dilbert drones.' They're told: “Don't make mistakes, do as you're told, don't think outside the box. Look for that safe, secure job with generous benefits and you'll do fine.”
Unfortunately, today's education system is preparing students for a world that no longer exists. Blue- and white-collar jobs are being outsourced to China, India and Latin America. But too many Americans still believe it's their birthright – even their entitlement - to have that safe, secure high-paying job with good bennies. As a result, we're not as competitive or sharp on average as we used to be. The free market and competition are not just good, but still great things. They keep you on your toes and force you to make the most of your abilities.
And because we're in the Information Age, the rate of change is accelerating at warp speed. Even as a 30-something, it's difficult for me to keep up sometimes. But I know that my business and life will be easier if I can see, accept and adapt to these changes instead of ignoring or fighting them. Robert Kiyosaki, author of the best-seller Rich Dad, Poor Dad, goes into more detail on these ideas in his Yahoo column.
The life cycle of some companies and industries is now measured in years, not decades. You can't be certain that a company or your job will be the same five years from now. If you want to get and stay competitive, you'll need to stay on top of things – or work with a team to help you stay up-to-speed. I've learned the hard way that doing it all on your own is a tough, slow lonely road.
The free-market, capitalistic system we're blessed to have in America isn't the easiest road to travel. Trust me, I've hit my share of speed bumps and potholes along the way. And it's still a struggle even today. But from taking this road less traveled, I've gained wisdom and confidence tempered with humility. That's a pretty good combination to be successful and happy in business and life.
Contrary to what the media tells you, most businesspeople I've met are the most generous folks around – not the most selfish. Before someone will part with their hard-earned money, you have to give them what they want and treat them well. For every self-serving Joe Nacchio you hear about, there are dozens of down-to-earth business owners who are good people to deal and be with.
Having said all this, I believe you should stay true to your morals and principles. My preference is the Judeo-Christian ones. It's some of the best wisdom around, and they transcend time; in other words, they apply to daily life no matter whether you lived in the 1st century, or you're alive in the 21st.
That's my Independence Day 2007 wish for Backbone America readers and all Americans: To discover and make the most of your talents; for confidence and wisdom tempered with humility; and for the company of good friends and family to help you enjoy the journey.